Unhappy Artists Deluge Bayou City Art Festival With Emails After Last-Minute Rule Change

Months after the November deadline for artists to sign up for this month's Bayou City Art Festival, its organizers changed the rules, expanding the pool of artists from 300 to 450, increasing booth fees and converting what had been the artists' close-in parking lot to more exhibition space.

The changes in the upcoming spring festival scheduled for March 28-30 at Memorial Park made a lot of artists uneasy, upset and in some cases outraged. When contacted by Art Attack, Susan Fowler, the interim executive director since November, told us that their small staff had received more than 2,400 emails in the last few days.

As the artists see it: more artists means more competition, no close-in parking means more schlepping materials in when inventory sells at the booths and an agreement is an agreement and shouldn't be changed months later. Especially since the original applicants paid money to have art experts assess their work in a juried system and that now is being bypassed with organizers just calling up artists they know of and inviting them to the show.

"When you have a fine arts show -- and Bayou is one of the better shows in the country -- there's an understanding that the artists are taking part in a jury process so they're collecting money and we are competing against say 1,000 or 2,000 people for 300 spots. If an artist gets into a show there's sort of a contractural agreement that we will abide by certain rules they ask us to sign and it's assumed when they present the proposal, the layout of the show and how many people are in the show and what the booth fees are going to be that those things are not something that's flexible," said one artist who has withdrawn in protest from this month's show.

Artists would have better accepted the expansion, he said, if it had been announced ahead of time for next fall, but not after so many had already committed to this spring show where the rules were suddenly changed.

But as Fowler and the Art Colony Association Board of Directors which oversees the festival see it, they couldn't wait any longer to take the action necessary to ensure the financial viability of the festival which has been steadily drawing down its reserve funds because of four outdoor festivals in a row with rain. The changes didn't happen sooner, she said, because a new board didn't take office until mid-January.

"The board of directors from Bayou City Art Festival made a conscious choice to grow the festival in order to secure the future. We had four festivals back to back that had rain. We had a rainy day fund that for us was a literal rainy day fund because we're an outdoor event," Fowler said.

In recent years the festival (which originated in Montrose and then moved to downtown) puts on a spring festival at Memorial Park and a fall festival downtown. And during last October's downtown festival, it rained both days. "It was torrential rain. So attendance was down because of the weather," Fowler said.

Some artists who were notified in December about whether they'd been accepted in the show, requested refunds of their booth fees, others were unable to change their plans after committing a certain amount of money to travel and shipping arrangements, one source who wished to remain anonymous told Art Attack. Booth fees ranging from $500 to $1,500 for the spring show were due in January and were supposedly non-refundable after February 17. According to Fowler, as of the end of last week, 24 artists had withdrawn and they were issuing refunds. However the $35 application fees were not being returned, a source said.

And one of the artists who withdrew from the show said he has not received his refund and is not at all sure he's going to get it within ten days as he was told. "If the history of their promises; they haven't fulfilled any timetable they've put in writing for the show, I don't see any reason to believe I'll get a refund check in ten days. They simply have not followed through on anything. They've missed every deadline."

It was the organization not hitting its usual marks that first drew the attention of artists. A series of emails passed on to Art Attack shows that artists began complaining that they weren't getting information from the festival group as to where they'd be placed, what other artists would be there or what hotel discounts were available. Rumors started circulating and were finally confirmed. After being informed of the changes, one artist wrote in an e-mail asking for a refund citing "the likely loss of income due to the expansion of the show."

Fowler said they had sent information out to the artists or talked to on the phone only to have them say they hadn't receive any information. And that the National Association of Independent Artists asked its members to contact Bayou City asking it not to change its show, even if those artists weren't in the show.

Still, she apologized to any artist who thought her organization hadn't been forthcoming soon enough with its communications.

"There's a little bit of stirring the pot. But for the most part we own it. We are very sorry if we failed to communicate our new strategy in a timely manner, we apologize. If we not responded to you, it's no excuse. We are trying to respond to you as quickly as possible. We're just owning it. We know they're upset. We hear them. We're really trying to get them the information that they need to make the good business decision about whether or not to come and be a part of the festival and we hope they will. "

According to an artist who contacted Art Attack, the Bayou City Art Festival prospectus used to read:

Twice a year, over 1000 qualified applicants from around the world submit their applications to be scrutinized by the Art Colony Association Jurors. Only 300 Artists will be selected to exhibit per festival, many of whom are featured in fine arts galleries and in prominent personal and museum collections around the world. The bi-annual festivals allow art collectors the opportunity to personally meet the artist, view original works, and purchase world class art. The experience that develops between a patron and the artist may last a lifetime.

On or about March 4, 2014 this was changed to:

Twice a year, over 1000 qualified applicants from around the world submit their applications to be scrutinized by the Art Colony Association Jurors. The top scoring juried artists will be selected to exhibit per festival, many of whom are featured in fine arts galleries and in prominent personal and museum collections around the world. The bi-annual festivals allow art collectors the opportunity to personally meet the artist, view original works, and purchase world class art. The experience that develops between a patron and the artist may last a lifetime.

This story continues on the next page.

A check of the 990s filed by the festival shows that in 2010, the festival's revenue less expenses was only $18,804. In 2011 things got very worse; the revenue less expenses line showed a negative $228,739. In 2012 things were better but still not great: the revenue less espences line showd a negative $46,470. Fowler said they made up the losses by pulling rainy day funds.

On good years, Bayou City Arts Festival has about 30,000 visitors to each of its two shows. Fowler said they hope to grow that number to 100,000 in the next two to five years. In 43 years the non-profit festival has given $35 million to various Houston art programming, she said, and wants to continue to expand that work. "We still give back to the community. We still 100 percent give back to non-profit programs."

In an email sent out to artists, Fowler wrote:

Hi [artist], The event prospectus was written before the Board of Directors for this year was elected and held there strategic planning session on how to proceed over the next two years. The new Board is the first almost entirely new Board in the show's 43 year history after term limits were adopted two years ago. This is a young, vibrant, working Board that understands today's marketing tools and the possibilities that we are presented with at BCAF. In the fourth largest city, with only our two art festivals and one other there is no reason we shouldn't be posting attendance at 100k to 200k just like Main Street, Fort Worth and the other top 7 that we partner with on ZAPP. As I said, our objective is growth and growth phases have to be implemented when there is momentum and passion behind doing it.

Now is that time for us. It allows us to stay vibrant and alive. It allows us to bring on additional sponsors at the national level and apply for operational grants that otherwise we would not qualify for. The business dynamics of keeping festivals like ours alive for artists like yourself is ever evolving just like every other business - and while we are non-profit, we have to run like a business to stay open. This business model is the model that we need to implement now in order to grow toward our 45th and 50th anniversary and support the independent artist who chooses the festival circuit as the primary way they like to communicate and do business with their patrons.

Yes, we boldly embrace the addition of artists. We have supported that addition with millions of new e-mail, e-blasts, print, digital, tv, radio, social and other marketing hits. We went from 0 to five people on our marketing team, with over 25 years of experience each in tv, advertising, social, digital, print and other marketing experience. My own experience includes over 25 years of work for major tv networks, film and world class live sporting and music events, serving in positions which include CEO, COO, Executive VP Production, etc.

Kelly has answered over 1500 e-mails personally, this week alone, from our artists, and many hundreds of others over the last month. To say that we are not responding is not accurate. Ours may be a slower response time than traditionally has been the response time in the past, but under the pressure of major changes in all aspects of our business with less than 6 full time employees - we are doing the best we can.

I hope this better informs you of our decision making process. Other festivals will likely follow in the coming year to two years to increase artists, unless they are already doing so via multiple shows next to each other as with Coconut Grove and St. Stephen's along with Artigras on the same weekend in Miami and the four festivals on the same weekend in Ann Arbor. With donations and sponsorship dollars running tight in the lower to mid-range market, you have to boost your numbers of both artists and patrons to appeal to the top level, national budgets, and prove that you can give them the exposure they need to become your partner.

Warm Regard, Susan Fowler

This story continues on the next page. She also said that many of the artists at Bayou City Art Festival already had to park farther away in the rodeo lot and came in on the shuttle service provided. So she said she didn't understand why so many were upset about this. But one artist said the parking arrangements make a big difference and it's a burden on artists when the first-come-first-served lot is a mile away and the only other choice is three miles away.

One person well acquainted with the show said in recent years that all the entrances to the festival haven't always been covered very well and that a certain number were getting in free - something that a cash-strapped organization might want to stop. Fowler said this couldn't be happening, that perhaps people weren't realizing that some of the people coming in a back way were volunteers and artists, but added that since event fencing usually has gaps, some patrons might have gotten in for free. But she called it highly unlikely.

Booth rates were increased by $50, Fowler said after they looked at what other top festivals in the United States were charging.

Fowler insisted that the show will maintain its high standards, even with an expanded pool of artists. But some artists are saying Bayou City has been calling artists previously rejected for the show, to reach the 450 mark. "Part of the question the artists raise is 'Oh my gosh, if you putting in more than 300 are you going to start accepting the velvet paintings? Well no, we're not," she pledged.

What everyone in this argument can agree upon is how important a show the Bayou City Art Festival has been. One artist told us that many of the artists derive half their yearly income from just this one show. Fowler said Bayou City is a "gateway show" for young professionals who come there to buy an affordable piece of quality art and who may then start venturing into Houston's art galleries.

"We expanded the show to make it more comfortable for patrons. We are upgrading the areas that are important to patrons like the VIP area, the children's creative zone, our main stage. We thought the artists would get behind all of this. I'm a brand new festival director and I thought 'Oh, they're going to be so happy that we're making it such a great experience for the patrons' and then they weren't."

"We're bringing in more patrons, freshening up the festival," Fowler said. "The last thing you want to do is to be stale."

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